Sunday, January 16, 2011

Something for MLK Day

I like to think I'm reasonably well-acquainted with American history. Yet this weekend I've heard a few discussions, all on NPR, about a new book that presents us with the first known account of the largest slave uprising in this country, which was in New Orleans in 1811. The book is American Uprising, by Daniel Rasmussen.

Yes, there was a slave revolt, involving more than 500 black men, led by a man who had been a slave driver, or overseer, and yes, it was suppressed, but we've never even heard about it because of the long tradition of Southern sympathizers successfully shaping history to reflect their prejudices.

Rasmussen is also not a member of any historical fraternity. He graduated from Harvard in 2009 and this book is an expansion of his honors thesis. To me, the major fact of this story is how the history of the revolt was suppressed for two centuries and how it reflects our national willingness to accept the Gone With the Wind approach to the antebellum period: happy slaves toiling in the fields until agitators fired them up, aided by turncoats such as the white overseer so beautifully and villainously played by the fabulous Victor Jory.

Slavery was no nicer than the Holocaust. The leaders of the revolt were brutally murdered and their severed heads held up on pikes as examples, similar to what the English did in the medieval days on London Bridge.

This shows of course that the historical profession still has a lot to undo from the days around 1900 when William A. Dunning of Columbia cooperated in depicting Reconstruction as an evil time foisted on the South. Dunning and his ilk--he sent graduate students all over the South to write separate histories of Reconstruction from his Southern-oriented point of view--bought the Confederate side hook, line, and sinker. From the South itself, you had people like Ulrich B. Phillips, who presented the Southern cause as a great states' right fight and inspired use of the "War Between the States" moniker rather than the rebellion that it was.

My friend Noah Griffin reminded me that the oft-deified Ronald Reagan, who opposed MLK Day, launched his campaign in 1980 in Philadelphia, Miss., ignoring the one thing that town was known for, infamously--the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers. I did my part in trying to keep that fact alive back when I was at Cornell and there was a memorial service for Mickey Schwerner, one of the three, and a Cornell grad. Someone was good enough to reprint my Sun column in that year's school yearbook.

So then we have the Trent Lott celebration of the Strom Thurmond Dixiecrat run for President in 1948 and Haley Barbour's recent recollection of how things were so comparatively peaceful when he grew up in Yazoo City, Miss.

We have to speak up every time someone tries to revise history this way. You can see how we have a long sordid line of people still now trying to change facts. It's the old "the names have been changed--to protect the guilty" variation on the old Dragnet intro.

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